Death by firing squad

It is estimated that 340 men have been executed in the U.S. by firing squad since 1600. Many of these were military executions carried out in the civil war and there have been 144 civilian shooting executions. Oklahoma carried out 24 between 1880 and 1899 and it was used for 23 executions in California between 1824 and 1852. Oklahoma retains shooting as an option should its lethal injection protocol be declared unconstitutional.
In the 20th century only one state other than Utah has actually used shooting.  Nevada carried out a single execution using an "execution machine" on May 14, 1913 when Andrija Mircovich elected this form of death for murder.  This machine consisted of a steel frame with three rifles mounted on it, one of which was loaded with a blank round.  The rifles were equipped with Maxim silencers and were fired by a coiled spring mechanism set off by cutting three strings.  The machine was never was used again and was sent for scrap during World War I.  The US Army used shooting instead of its normal method of hanging from time to time and had a written protocol for “death by musketry” as it put it.  Two soldiers were shot at Shepton Mallet prison in Somerset England during World War II.
Alex Miranda was shot by an eight man firing squad on May 30, 1944 and Benjamin Pyegate on November 28, 1944, both for murder.

Under Utah law since 1852, the condemned man had the choice of shooting by firing squad (which complies with the Mormon doctrine of Blood Atonement) or hanging, most prisoners choosing shooting. Utah abolished hanging as an option and replaced it with lethal injection.  Prisoners condemned before May 3, 2004 and who elected shooting may still be put to death in this manner.  It is thought that there are four men who could thus, potentially be shot.  Death sentences since then specify lethal injection as the sole method.  Between 1852 and 2010 there have been 50 legal executions in the state of Utah. Of these, 41 have been by firing squad, five by hanging, and four by lethal injection. 


Wallace Wilkerson was condemned for the shooting murder of William Baxter on June 11, 1877.  His lawyers appealed to the US Supreme Court in the fall of 1878 and it ruled in March 1879 that execution by shooting was not a cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment.  Ironically Wilkerson’s execution was to be very cruel and unusual.  He was shot on May 16, 1879 and was not strapped to the chair and also refused the blindfold.  The sheriff put a, three inch white target over the Wilkerson's heart and then withdrew and gave the signal to the firing squad some 20 feet away.  Just as they fired Wilkerson straightened up in the chair and the bullets missed his heart, one of them shattering his arm.  He fell forward and cried out "Oh, my God! My God! They have missed".  It took 27 minutes before Wilkerson could be pronounced dead, as there was no provision for a coup de grace in Utah law. 

One of Utah’s executions was unusual for two reasons.  Firstly it was consensual and secondly the prisoner, 39 year old John Deering agreed to have his execution monitored by an electrocardiograph.  He was shot on October 31 1938.  This showed an increase in heart rate from 72 to 180 beats per minute during the preparation stage of the execution and that the heart continued to beat for almost 16 seconds after the bullets hit him.  According to the Chicago Tribune newspaper he was certified dead 2 ½ minutes later.

Modern firing squad executions.
On Monday January 17, 1977, Gary Mark Gilmore (see photo) became the first person to be executed in the U.S. for nearly 10 years after putting up a strenuous campaign to be allowed to die. He had been convicted of the murders by shooting of a motel clerk, Bennie Bushnell, and of a gas station attendant, Max Jensen. At the time of the killings, Gilmore was on parole from a 12-year sentence for armed robbery.  36 year old Gilmore chose shooting. He was executed at 9:07 a.m. CST by five volunteers in the old canning factory in the grounds of the Utah state prison at Point of the Mountain near Salt Lake City using Winchester Model 94 lever action repeating rifles loaded with Winchester Silver Tip 150-grain .30-30 caliber cartridges. Only five of the rifles were loaded with live ammunition, the sixth contained a blank round so that the firing squad would, at least in theory, not know who had fired the fatal shots.  He was tied to an old chair (see photo) and had a white target pinned over his heart and a black hood covering his face (this is on the back of the screen behind the chair in the photo). After the death warrant had been read to him he was asked if there was anything he wanted to say and uttered the famous line "Lets do it."  The firing squad were positioned behind a screen some 30 feet from Gilmore.  Dr. Serge M. Moore, Utah’s Chief Medical Examiner told reporters that all four bullets had hit Gillmore’s heart within two inches of each other and that he had taken two minutes to die.  Reporters present at the execution noted movement in his body for 15 – 20 seconds after the shots were fired and that he continued breathing during this time.  After execution an autopsy was carried out and in accordance with Gillmore’s wishes, his corneas, pituitary gland, liver and kidneys were donated for medical research.
His execution, which was headline news worldwide, restarted capital punishment in the USA and was graphically described in Norman Mailer’s book and subsequent film "The Executioner's Song."
A fully detailed article on this execution is here.

Nineteen years later John Taylor (see photo) became the second person to suffer the same fate.
Taylor, 36, was convicted of the 1988 rape and strangulation of 11 year-old Charla King and was duly executed on January 26, 1996 at 12:03 a.m. Mountain Time.
One of the nine media witnesses, Paul Murphy of KTVX-TV Salt Lake, described the scene saying “we saw this very large man strapped to a chair. His eyes were darting back and forth."
He was strapped to the dark blue painted execution chair (see photo) by his hands and feet and lifted his chin for Warden Hank Galetka to secure a strap around his neck and place the black hood over his head.
At 12:03 a.m., on the count of three, the five riflemen standing 23 feet away fired the standard Winchester Model 94 rifles. Four of these were loaded with a single Winchester Silver Tip 150-grain .30-.30 bullet, while the fifth contained a blank round. The relatively light bullets which expand well at short distances, were fired at a white cloth target pinned over Taylor's heart. Blood rapidly darkened the chest area of his navy blue clothing, and four minutes later, a doctor pronounced him dead. Very little blood spilled into the pan under the chair's mesh seat.
According to a witness, as the volley hit him "Taylor's hands squeezed up, went down, and came up and squeezed again. His chest was covered with blood."
The prison doctor came in, cut holes in the hood and examined Taylor's pupils to verify he was dead, pronouncing him dead at 12:07, according to Ray Wahl, director of field operations at the Utah State Prison. "It went like clockwork, just like we rehearsed," prison warden Hank Galetka said. "There was no hesitation at all, Taylor went to his death with steely determination even though only hours before he had to be given medication because his stomach was doing flip-flops."

Post 1988, all Utah executions take place at the Utah State Prison in Draper, in a purpose built execution chamber.  This is a white painted room 24 feet long and 20 feet wide, built in 1998.  On each side of the chamber there are three bulletproof glass enclosed witness rooms. One is for the state's witnesses. On the other side of the execution area are two witness rooms: one room for witnesses selected by the offender; one room for media witnesses. At one end of the chamber is a seat equipped with straps, while at the other end the wall has two gun ports.  The steel and mesh execution chair (see photo) is painted a dark blue and has a pan beneath the seat to catch the inmate’s blood and is surrounded by sand bags on each side to prevent ricochets. This facility had only been used once previously, for the lethal injection of Joseph Mitchell Parsons in 1999.

Friday June 18th, 2010 saw Utah’s third firing squad execution when 49 year old Ronnie Lee Gardner (see photo) was executed at the State Prison in Draper just after midnight.  Gardner was sentenced to death in 1985 for the murder of attorney Michael Burdell while trying to escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse in April 1985, where he was on trial for the murder by shooting of barman Melvyn John Otterstrom during a 1984 robbery.  Gardner also shot and wounded court bailiff George "Nick" Kirk who died 11 years later as a result, according to his family. A female accomplice had smuggled the gun into court and slipped it to Gardner prior to the escape attempt.
Just after midnight Gardner, wearing just a dark blue jump suit, was led the 90 feet from the observation cell to the death chamber.  Here Gardner was strapped into the execution chair and put to death in accordance with Utah’s normal protocol as described below.  Asked if he had any last words he told the warden “no, I do not. No.”  The firing squad leader counted down from five and the squad fired on the word two.  Reporters who witnessed the execution noted that Gardner's arm twitched momentarily after the volley had been fired at 12.15.  He was pronounced dead at 12:17, two minutes later.  Four bullet holes were visible in the wood panel behind the execution chair after the body was removed.  Gardner was cooperative throughout the procedure.

Utah’s protocol for firing squad execution.
The firing squad is composed of six corrections officers, comprising one squad leader and five shooters.
The inmate is brought from the observation cell at 12.05am into the execution chamber where Velcro restraints are applied to the arms, legs and chest. A head restraint is applied loosely around the prisoner’s neck to hold his neck and head in an upright position. The inmate wears a dark blue boiler suit to which a white cloth circle attached by Velcro to the area over the heart. Behind the execution chair are sandbags to absorb the volley and prevent ricochets. Dark sheets are draped over the sandbags.
Approximately 20 feet in front of the inmate is a partition. This has firing ports for each member of the execution team (see photo). There is a shelf like platform gun rest inside the partition, below the firing ports, for the shooters to steady their rifles.
When the inmate has been restrained, he is asked by the warden if he has any last statement to make. When he has finished, a black hood is placed over his head and the warden leaves the room.
The firing squad members take aim at the white cloth circle on the prisoner’s chest. On the command being given, they shoot simultaneously. A physician from the Utah Department of Corrections examines the inmate after the volley has been fired to determine death.
The estimated average length of time that elapses from the time that the prisoner is restrained to the time that death is determined is 8 to 10 minutes.
Individuals authorized to attend an execution by firing squad include witnesses selected by the offender, the victim’s family, government witnesses, and administrative staff (as determined by the executive director of the prison).

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